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Scroll Work

June 5, 2013

Science fiction authors seem to have prophetic power in their prediction of future technologies. Jules Verne is the prime example, and the National Geographic published the following list in 2011 to mark Verne's 183rd birthday.[1] The article was also the link for that day's Google Doodle.[2]

• Electric Submarine• Solar Sail• Lunar Module
• Newscast• Skywriting• Videoconferencing
• Taser• Splashdown Spaceship 

However, three of these (the newscast, skywriting and videoconferencing) are from the novel, In the Year 2889 (A L'Anne 2889), actually written by Verne's son, Michel Verne, but published under his father's name. Still, the electric submarine, which is more like a nuclear submarine in my opinion, and manned moon exploration are enough to ensure Jules Verne's place in history.

Figure caption

Life Among the Fishes.

Beneath the sea is at least as exotic as outer space, which explains the appeal of Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (Vingt mille lieues sous les mers), published in 1870, five years after From the Earth to the Moon (De la terre à la lune).

(A portion of the June 15, 1884, cover of the magazine, "L'Algerie," via Wikimedia Commons.)

As many science fiction authors after him, Verne didn't see science and technology as a panacea. He wrote a dystopian novel, Paris in the Twentieth Century, which imagined a technological society in the year 1960 that's pushed its culture aside. Verne wrote this in 1863, but his publisher wouldn't release it. Perhaps he didn't think this dark portrayal of technical progress would sell. It was finally published in 1994, 131 years after its writing.

One interesting part of this novel was its portrayal of the women of the future. Wikipedia summarizes the text this way, "...from mindless, repetitive factory work and careful attention to finance and science, most women have become cynical, ugly, neurotic career women." Fortunately, our world is not quite that dystopian.

I read a science fiction short story during my high school years (title and author forgotten) which portrayed a unique photocopier. It was written in the era when Xerox photocopiers were rare. In fact, the public library in my city had a chemical process copier that was considered high technical art at the time. Such photocopies were so bad, but so expensive, that publishers were not then worried that photocopiers would eat into their book sales.

The photocopy device described in the story was designed for industrial espionage. It could copy the fronts and backs of all documents in an envelope or attaché case without the documents being removed. This science fiction story was prescient, since there is now a primitive version of such a device being used to read ancient scrolls that are too brittle to open. Scientists at Cardiff University and Queen Mary, University of London, have just successfully read a medieval legal scroll provided by the Norfolk Record Office.[3-7]

As can be expected, X-rays are involved; specifically the well known medical imaging technique called X-ray tomography. The research is a four year project, "High Definition X-ray Microtomography and Advanced Visualisation Techniques for Information Recovery from Unopenable Historical Documents," funded at about two million dollars by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the United Kingdom agency that funds research in engineering and the physical sciences.[3]

Figure caption

A rolled-up scroll, ready for examination on the X-ray microtomography apparatus.

(EPSRC image.)

As in conventional tomography, a three-dimensional map is built-up of a space using X-ray beams to image slices of the space and then construct an image after much computation. The trick to any X-ray imaging is contrast, and that's why a drink of a barium sulfate suspension, or an injection of iodine into the bloodstream, is sometimes used in medical imaging.

The scroll imaging is aided by the type of ink used in these documents. Iron gall ink, the most commonly used ink in Europe from the 12th through 19th centuries, contains a high percentage of iron. It was produced by the addition of iron to the natural acid, gallotannic acid, extracted from oak apples (also known as 'oak galls').[3] These oak galls are an oak tree's reaction to parasitism by the gall wasp.

Iron gall ink was prepared by steeping iron nails in this low pH tannic acid (C6H2(OH)3COOH); or, by addition of ferrous sulfate (iron(II) sulfate, FeSO4). Of course, acid and paper are not a good combination, so calcium carbonate (CaCO3, usually from crushed eggshells) was added to attain a neutral pH (pH = 7).

Figure caption

A scroll being scanned in the microtomograph.

(EPSRC image.)

The scanning is done at the Institute of Dentistry at Queen Mary, University of London, which also uses it to image previously unstudied features in teeth.[3] In tomography, maintaining the position of the specimen is critical, so X-ray transparent fixturing, including nitrogen-filled polyurethane foam, is used to hold the scrolls in place. Cardiff University handles the software portion of the project. In the end, an image of the document as it would appear unrolled is produced.[3]

Says Tim Wess, a professor at Cardiff University,
"Across the world, literally thousands of previously unusable documents up to around a thousand years old could now become available for historical research. It really will be possible to read the unreadable."[3]


  1. 8 Jules Verne Inventions That Came True, National Geographic, February 8, 2011.
  2. Jennifer Hom, "Jules Verne's 183rd Birthday," Google Doodle, Feb 8, 2011.
  3. Reading the Unreadable, Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council Press Release, May 16, 2013.
  4. Reading the Unreadable, University of Cardiff Press Release, May 22, 2013.
  5. 'Unopenable' historic scrolls will yield their secrets to new X-ray system, Queen Mary, University of London, Press Release. May 16, 2013.
  6. Cardiff University: X-rays 'read' ink in historic scrolls, BBC News - Wales, May 16, 2013.
  7. Reading the Unreadable, EPSRC YouTube video, May 15, 2013.

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